The Philippines, one of the world's biggest rice buyers, will loosen restrictions on imports of the grain, potentially boosting opportunities for key suppliers in the region such as Vietnam and Thailand.

The Southeast Asian nation plans to reduce tariffs on imports, with a charge of 35 percent on total annual shipments up to 805,200 tonnes, and 50 percent beyond that level, Agriculture Undersecretary Segfredo Serrano told reporters. The current tariff is 40 percent on shipments up to 350,000 tonnes, and 50 percent beyond that point.

Serrano, discussed the details of a recent agreement between the Philippines and major rice exporters, said the new duty rates would last until 2017.

"It's a done deal," he said, adding that the Philippines expects formal approval of the move from the World Trade Organization (WTO) next month. "It will take effect immediately."

But doubts remain about whether the new tariffs are low enough to encourage private buyers to ship more rice into the Philippines.

"It's still high at 35 percent. I think a 10- to 20-percent tariff would be a good level," said a Manila-based rice trader, declining to be named as he was not authorized to speak with media.

Easing the restrictions on rice imports has been a hot trade issue in the Philippines, with the government pushing to keep the high tariffs to protect local farmers despite the country's commitment to support the removal of global trade barriers.

Rampant Smuggling

High tariffs have been blamed for rampant smuggling of the grain into the Philippines, where prices in recent weeks have been 20 percent higher than the same time last year after Typhoon Haiyan devastated key growing regions.

The government does not issue data on private rice imports, but traders have told Reuters that shipments this year would likely be well below 350,000 tonnes.

The state grains procurement agency, the National Food Authority (NFA), is allowed to import rice tariff free, however.

The Philippines has already bought a total of 1.3 million tonnes from Vietnam, the world's number two exporter of the grain after India, in deals over the last seven months. On Thursday, it said it would purchase another 200,000 tonnes of rice from the country.